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Spirituality and End-of-Life Care

Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen on February 6, 2023

People who are diagnosed with a fatal illness usually feel a sense of hopelessness or despair. They cope with these feelings by turning to spiritual practices like religion. Most religions have views on life after death: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity all mention an afterlife in their sacred texts.  Believing that there is another better life after this one can be calming for the terminally ill. 


When a dying person is reaching their final moments, they often express wishes for religious counseling or a visit from a religious figure such as a priest or chaplain. Healthcare professionals are also available to discuss spiritual matters with dying patients, but they may be uncomfortable with the subject matter or they may feel that they cannot give adequate advice. If you are a relative of a terminally ill person, you may feel the same way. So how should you properly talk about spirituality with people who are approaching the end of their lives?

First of all, you should visit your loved one and assess their well-being. They may want religious guidance if they are:


  • Searching for meaning–they may ask questions such as “Why me?” or “How will I be remembered?”
  • Spending a lot of time in isolation, without speaking
  • Refusing care
  • Saying they feel worried or scared


Starting the conversation about spiritual guidance can be difficult, especially if you are not aware of your loved one’s religious affiliation or if they have one at all. But you can start by asking questions such as: 

  • “Do you feel at peace?”
  • “What is important to you?”
  • “What can I do to help you?”
  • “Is there anyone you would like to speak to?”


If your loved one is still not receptive to your questions, you can speak with healthcare professionals about arranging a meeting with a spiritual counselor. Many hospitals offer spiritual support for end-of-life patients.


Your loved one may express their desire to see a religious figure, attend a service, or spend time with family. It’s important to try and fulfill their last wishes. They may also maintain that they do not need or want any external spiritual guidance, but you can gently persuade them to speak with someone if you think they may need to.


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It may be that your loved one wants to discuss spiritual matters only with you and not with a religious figure or counselor. In this case, you should listen to what they have to say. Encourage them to open up and discuss their fears about death. It may be difficult, but listen to their beliefs without passing judgement or voicing your own opinions. 


All in all, it can be very difficult to care for people with a terminal illness. The stress may take its toll on you as well. You may question your own religious beliefs or spiritual needs. If you feel the need to do so, you should seek advice from a faith leader or counselor as well.

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